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Fish Expert Changes Tune on Snake Dams

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, January 25, 2006

Don Chapman is a pleasant man who has taken it upon himself to deliver a grim message -- global warming is real and it's pushing Snake River salmon toward extinction.

The longtime fisheries scientist and educator spent years believing and testifying that it was not necessary to breach Snake River dams to save threatened and endangered salmon runs. But rising river temperatures and shrinking ice caps recently convinced Chapman to change his mind.

"You can't see it today. You can't feel it with your hands but it is real," he said. "I think second only to nuclear weapons proliferation and the possibility of interchange of those weapons, global warming trumps other concerns."

The 75-year-old McCall resident was the guest speaker at the Clarkston Rotary Club meeting Tuesday and speaks to Lewiston Rotarians today.

As a fisheries professor at the University of Idaho, Oregon State University, Montana State University and the University of Wisconsin, Chapman taught many of the salmon managers working in the Northwest. But for years he stood apart from most of them in his belief that dams and salmon could coexist.

He owned a fisheries consulting business for 20 years and often testified on behalf of clients opposed to dam removal.

Chapman believed fish bypass systems at the dams and a system of barges and trucks that move juvenile salmon through the dams could keep the runs from dying out.

"I thought we could limp along with transportation with the dams in place," he said.

Then Chapman began working on global warming studies. The evidence of worldwide warming temperatures was too much to ignore. It includes shrinking ice fields and glaciers, warming sea temperatures and, more importantly to Chapman, warmer temperatures in some of the most productive salmon rivers along the Pacific Coast.

Recorded average temperatures at Bonneville Dam, the first built on the Columbia River, have risen 1.8 degrees in the past 60 years. Temperature in the Snake and Columbia rivers frequently exceed 72 degrees in the heat of summer.

Temperatures higher than 68 degrees are considered harmful to salmon. The warm water puts stress on salmon and steelhead, makes them more susceptible to disease, helps predators and causes adult salmon and steelhead to delay their migration.

The warmer temperatures are leading to smaller snowpacks, lower summertime river flows and other detrimental habitat changes for salmon and steelhead.

"Life is going to be tough for Snake River listed chinook and steelhead," he said.

To make matters worse, populations in western states and the world are growing. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, that are produced when fossil fuels are burned, are on the rise and he said there appears to be little national or global will to curb the trend.

"I expect more CO2 output, not less."

Chapman said if wild salmon and steelhead are to be saved the Snake River dams need to be removed. Doing so will cool temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers, reduce travel time for fish, increase spawning habitat for fall chinook and eliminate a major source of adult and juvenile fish mortality.

He also advocates for commercial and tribal fishing reforms. He'd like river fisheries to be moved to Bonneville Dam where anglers could target hatchery fish and allow wild fish to pass upriver to their spawning grounds.

If dams are breached, Chapman acknowledges there will be winners and losers. Those who stand to lose from dam breaching include industries that rely on the slack water transportation system provided by the dams.

Because of growing populations in states like Idaho, Oregon and Washington, the power produced by the dams will have to be replaced. Using coal fired or natural gas plants to replace the lost power will only add to the global warming problem.

Because of that Chapman said the region should turn to nuclear power that he believes is safer and more efficient than it has ever been. But the region needs to get serious about finding ways to safely manage nuclear waste. Given all that needs to happen for dams to be breached, Chapman doesn't believe it will happen anytime soon. In the meantime he expects temperature trends to continue to climb.

"I don't know if society has the will to do it," he said. "I wish I could be more optimistic."

Eric Barker
Fish Expert Changes Tune on Snake Dams
Oregonian, January 25, 2006

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